Earlier this year at the summit of the African Union in Ethiopia, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a practically unprecedented speech in favor of LGBT rights, a speech that fomented much unrest among delegates in the room. Africa is widely considered the most dangerous continent in the world for gays, with dozens of countries penalizing homosexual or transgender activity with fines, imprisonment, or the death penalty. At a more recent speech on April 2 at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum, Ban Ki-moon again brought up the issue, though perhaps to a more sympathetic audience the second time around.
In similarly groundbreaking news, the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union, for anyone who might have forgotten) passed a resolution in February of this year that radically redefines the role of the citizen in the overarching organization, a resolution that just took effect on the first of this month. The so-called Citizens’ Initiative allows any proposal backed by one million citizens from at least seven member states to propose legislation in areas where the Commission has the power to enact said legislation. For one of the first times in the recent history of the Union, citizens have been given the right to hold the quasi-government a little more accountable.
As a final bit of background information, one of the European Union’s fundamental treaties expressly prohibits any sort of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, a tenet that has been resoundingly affirmed by the more recent Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, passed in 2000. Yet a simple glance at the facts shows the level to which these rights have not been affirmed: As of the writing of this article, 18 of the 27 member states do not permit gay couples to adopt children, nine states do not recognize same-sex partnerships as legitimate, and even the right to marriage is only permitted in 5 of these (four of them have constitutional bans on the matter). Cyprus even maintains a ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military. It is plain to see how the members of the Union have not upheld the basic language of their unifying statutes, a glaring error for an organization that is, in so many ways, advanced. Furthermore, it is embarrassing for Western nations like these (and even my own United States) to lecture African countries on human rights when our own shortcomings are painfully evident.
Now is the time for the citizens of the European Union to use their mandate, then. Legislation that affords so much political potential outside of Brussels has been rare and must be exercised to its full potential to have any effect. This does not imply that there are not other issues facing the EU, and serious ones at that: the Euro crisis has exhausted everyone, and Europe has everyday problems as well. But this is an opportunity to stand up for something that does not need calculations, that does not need balancing and bargaining, that does not need to account for firewalls and bailout restrictions. This is merely a basic human right that has already been promised but not delivered, and the citizens of Europe should be ashamed as long as it remains so and is within their power to change.